Raiders win home field

Rain and wind took Rich Gannon out of the hunt for Dan Marino's single-season passing record Saturday but the elements weren't enough to slow down the Raiders running game. An afterthought for most of the season while Gannon and Oakland's pass-happy offense danced their way to a No. 1 ranking, the ground game has come to life in full force the last two weeks. On Saturday, the Kansas City Chiefs found that out the hard, wet way.

With Charlie Garner darting and dodging his way to a season-high 135 yards and with Tyrone Wheatley and Zack Crockett combining for an additional 141 yards on the ground, the Raiders dispatched the Chiefs with a dominating 24-0 victory before 62,078 rain-soaked screaming fans at Networks Associates Coliseum.

            The win clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs for the Raiders, giving them home-field advantage throughout the postseason and the all-important first-round bye that comes with it.

            More importantly in the big scope of things, Oakland gave notice to the rest of potential playoff teams that they will no longer dictate games based on the passing of Gannon. On a day in which the NFL's No. 1-ranked passing game accounted for just 79 yards in the air, the Raiders had one of their easiest and most lopsided victories in quite some time.

            Oakland rang up 280 total yards on the ground, the Raiders' most impressive performance running the ball since a young minister named Napoleon Kaufman torched the Denver Broncos for a franchise-record 227 yards in 1997.

            Unlike Kaufman's big day, though, Saturday's performance against the Chiefs was no one-man show. While Garner, the Swiss Army knife of NFL running backs and one of the most elusive players in the league both on and off the field, sliced and diced his way through Kansas City's defense like a bull running through a field of wet tissue, Wheatley and Crockett punished the Chiefs with a steady pounding up the middle.

            Kansas City, fighting for its playoff life heading into the game, had no answers and watched as its defense spent the better part of the day picking itself out of the muck and mire that formed swamp-like conditions on the turf while Oakland's troika of runners danced merrily up and down the field.

            ''I've been telling everyone all season that we can run the ball whenever we want to,'' said Garner, who fell just short of becoming only the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. ''If we go out and execute the way we did and make plays, I don't think anyone can come in here and beat us, as long as we don't beat ourselves. In a situation like today, you have to establish the run. We came out and we were physical.''

            How impressive were the Raiders on the ground? Consider that Garner had 100 yards in his pocket by the second play of the third quarter and didn't get stopped for a loss until the 25th time he took a handoff from Gannon. By then Oakland held a comfortable 17-0 lead and the outcome was firmly in hand.

            Garner is a skitterish-type runner who can leave defenders grasping at air in prime weather conditions, let alone in a torrential downpour like the one that steadily rained down Saturday. Against the bewildered Chiefs that was all the extra leverage needed by Garner, who hadn't carried the ball more than 16 times in a game this season but who averaged an impressive 4.7 yards-per-carry average on his 29 carries against Kansas City.

            Numbers like that are bound to give nightmares to the teams in the playoffs, who were already against the wall in trying to slow down the passing of Gannon.

            ''We got here with the pass,'' said left tackle Barry Sims, ''and now we can finish it with the run.''

            Garner wasn't at his best when the two teams played earlier this season. Fresh off a hamstring injury that had slowed him for two weeks, Garner still managed 119 yards of total offense against Kansas City in October but the Raiders lost 20-10.

            In the rematch in Oakland, there would be no such slowdown and no such loss. The Raiders, who had 416 yards of offense in the first game but only one touchdown and a field goal to show for it, had 354 on Saturday but were more effective getting into the end zone.

            Garner and Crockett each scored rushing touchdowns while Gannon -- who played the entire game wearing gloves on both of his hands due to the stormy weather -- found tight end Doug Jolley for a 15-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.

            Gannon only passed the ball 14 times, completing seven of his throws for a season-low 79 yards. He understood going in that his chance of catching Marino's passing record were slim and the odds trimmed back even more once the rains unloaded from the heavens.

            ''When you get in a situation with the elements like they were today, you've got to be able to run the ball,'' said Oakland center Barret Robbins. ''The pass has pretty much been taken away from you.''

            Asked how important it was that the Raiders were able to showcase their run in the two games leading up to the playoffs, Robbins didn't hesitate to answer. ''Equally as important as having that week off and being the No. 1 seed in the AFC. This is going to have teams looking at this offense real close.''

            Oakland's defense should also get some attention. The Raiders have been playing at a peak level over the last month, even though their secondary has been banged up considerably.

            Against Kansas City, Oakland was without cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Trace Armstrong, both of whom were inactive for the game with injuries.

            No problem against the Chiefs, who were also minus running back Priest Holmes, the league-leader in total yards from scrimmage, who was out with a hip injury. His replacement, Mike Cloud, didn't have a chance.

            The Raiders slammed Cloud at every turn, knocking him sprawling onto the drenched field all afternoon. Cloud had but 23 yards on nine carries while Kansas City managed only 44 yards rushing and just 176 yards of total offense.

            The end result was a shutout victory that was the Raiders' first-ever against their long-time rivals.

            ''We don't like each other, it's a well-known fact around the league,'' said Oakland defensive end Regan Upshaw. ''We kicked their (butt) today and it felt good.''

 


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